“God Continually Expands the Possibilities of the Soul”
VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 5, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered today at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square. The Holy Father continued his reflection focused on St. Gregory of Nyssa.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters!
I offer you some aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s teaching, which we already talked about last Wednesday.
First of all, Gregory of Nyssa shows a highly elevated sense of man’s dignity. Man’s aim, says the bishop-saint, is to make himself like God, and he reaches this end above all through love, knowledge and the practice of the virtues, “luminous rays that come down from the divine nature” (“De beatitudinibus” 6: PG 44,1272C), in a perpetual and dynamic adherence to good, like a runner stretching forward.
Gregory uses, to this end, an effective image, already present in the Letter of Paul to the Philippians: “épekteinómenos” (3:13), which means “stretching oneself out” toward that which is greater, toward the truth and love.
This representative expression indicates a profound reality: The perfection we seek is not something that is conquered once and for all; perfection is a permanent journey, a constant commitment to progress, because complete likeness to God can never be achieved; we are always on the path (cf. “Homilia in Canticum” 12: PG 44,1025d).
The story of each soul is that of a love which is totally fulfilled, and at the same time open to new horizons, because God continually expands the possibilities of the soul, so as to make it capable of ever greater good. God himself, who placed the seeds of good within us, and from whom comes every initiative of holiness, “forms the block of clay … polishing and cleaning our spirit, forming Christ in us” (“In Psalmos” 2:11: PG 44,544B).
Gregory is careful to clarify: “It is not the result of our efforts, neither is it the result of human strength to become like the Deity, but rather it is the result of God’s generosity, who even from his origin offered to our nature the grace of likeness with him” (“De virginitate” 12:2: SC 119,408-410).
For the soul, therefore, “it is not a matter of knowing something about God, but in having God within us” (“De beatitudinibus” 6: PG 44, 1269c). As Gregory notes, “divinity is purity, it is freedom from the passions and removal from all evil: If all these things are in you, God is truly in you” (“De beatitudinibus” 6: PG 44,1272C).
When we have God within us, when man loves God, through that reciprocity that is part of the law of love, he wants what God himself wants (cf. “Homilia in Canticum” 9: PG 44,956ac), and therefore cooperates in forming the divine image within himself, so that “our spiritual birth is the result of a free choice, and we are parents of ourselves in some way, creating ourselves as we want to be, and forming ourselves through our will according to the model we choose” (“Vita Moysis” 2:3: SC 1bis,108).
To ascend to God, man must be purified: “The path, that leads human nature to heaven, is nothing more than separation from the evils of this world. … Becoming like God means becoming just, holy and good. … If therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5:1), ‘God is in heaven’ and if, according to the prophet (Psalm 72:28) you ‘belong to God,’ it necessarily follows that you must be there where God is, from the moment that you are united to him. Because he has commanded that, when you pray, you call God Father, he tells you to become like your heavenly Father, with a life worthy of God, as the Lord commands us more explicitly in other passages, saying: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’ (Matthew 5:48)” (“De oratione dominica” 2: PG 44,1145ac).
In this journey of spiritual ascent, Christ is the model and the master, who shows us the beautiful image of God (cf. “De perfectione Christiana”: PG 46,272a). Looking at him, each one of us discovers ourselves to be “the painter of our own life,” in which our will undertakes the work and our virtues are the colors at our disposal (ibid.: PG 46,272b).
Therefore, if man is considered worthy of Christ’s name, how must he act?
Gregory responds in this way: “[He must] always examine his inner thoughts, his words and actions, to see if they are focused on Christ or if they are far from him” (ibid.: PG 46,284c).
Gregory, as we mentioned earlier, speaks of ascent: ascent to God in prayer through purity of heart; but ascent to God also through love of neighbor. Love is the ladder that leads us to God. Therefore, he heartily encourages each one his listeners: “Be generous with these brothers, victims of the plight. Give to the hungry that which you deny your own stomach” (ibid.: PG 46,457c).
With great clarity Gregory reminds us that we are all dependent on God, and therefore he exclaims: “Do not think that everything is yours! There must also be something for the poor, the friends of God. The truth, in fact, is that everything comes from God, the universal Father, and that we are brothers, and we belong to the same progeny” (ibid PG 46,465b).
And so the Christian must examine himself, Gregory insists: “What does it profit you to fast and abstain from meat, if with your wickedness you bite your brother? What do you gain from it, in God’s eyes, from not eating what is yours, if you unjustly strip from the hands of a poor man what is his?” (ibid.: PG 46,456a).
We conclude our catecheses on the three great Cappadocian Fathers by recalling the important aspect of the spiritual doctrine of Gregory of Nyssa, which is prayer.
To make progress on the journey toward perfection and to welcome God within ourselves, to carry within us the Spirit of God, the love of God, man must turn to him in prayer with faith: “Through prayer we are able to be with God. He who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is the support and defense of chastity, the restraint of anger, the quieting and control of pride. Prayer is the guardian of virginity, protection of fidelity in marriage, hope for those who keep vigil, abundance of fruit for farmers, security for the traveler” (“De oratione dominica” 1: PG 44,1124A-B).
The Christian prays, inspired by the Lord’s prayer: “If we want to pray for God’s Kingdom to descend upon us, we ask this with the power of the Word: That I be removed from corruption, freed from death, released from the chains of error; that death will never reign over me, that the tyranny of evil will never have power over us, that the enemy never rule over me or make me a prisoner through sin, but may your kingdom come, so that the passions that rule me may be removed from me or, better yet, be obliterated” (ibid., 3: PG 44,1156d-1157a).
At the end of his earthly life, the Christian can approach God in serenity. In speaking about this, St. Gregory refers to the death of his sister Macrina and writes that at the moment of her death she prayed: “You who have the power on earth to remit sins forgive me, so that I can have the Risen One” (Psalm 38:14), and that I can be found spotless in your eyes, in the moment in which I am stripped of my body (cf. Collosians 2:11), so that my spirit, holy and immaculate (cf. Ephesians 5:27) will be welcomed into your hands, “like incense before you” (Psalm 140:2)” (“Vita Macrinae” 24: SC 178,224).
This teaching of Gregory’s remains valid: not only speaking about God, but bringing God within us. We do this through prayer and by living in the spirit of love for all of our brothers.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, the Holy Father addressed the audience in various languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on the teachers of the early Church, we once again consider Saint Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century. At the heart of Saint Gregory’s teaching is the innate dignity of every man and woman, made in the image of God and called to grow more fully into his likeness. Human fulfillment is found in a dynamic process of growth towards that perfection which has its fullness in God; daily we “press forward” (cf. Phil 3:13) towards union with God through love, knowledge and the cultivation of the virtues. This ascent to God calls for a process of purification which, by his grace, perfects our human nature and produces fruits of justice, holiness and goodness. In all of this, Jesus Christ, the perfect image of the Father, is our model and teacher. Gregory insists on Christ’s presence in the poor, who challenge us to acknowledge our own dependence on God and to imitate his mercy. Finally, Gregory points to the importance of prayer modeled on the Lord’s own prayer for the triumph of God’s Kingdom. May his teaching inspire us to seek that holiness and purity of heart which will one day enable us to see God face to face!
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I extend a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here today, including the groups from England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Japan, Korea and the United States. I thank you for the affection with which you have greeted me. Upon you all, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.